Tuesday, November 26, 2013

MEDIA, LIES AND REALITY TV - On Telling our Politicians to Get Real

I have not written here in a period of time, mostly because I am trying to build my business and develop a broader client base.  At this time of the year, clients affected by economic crisis tend to strike out at everybody in their way and spread their hurt all over, including those that are trying to fix things for them.  One Christmas a few years ago, a gentleman phoned my office to tell me he had a gun and was prepared to use it on himself.  His sister ended up spending the holidays with him, though his words haunted me for a long time.  This is why I try to take a few weeks off at Christmas time to get out of everybody's way, not because I celebrate anything or care about the crass consumerism known as Christmas.

Anyhow with the advent of recent federal by-elections, we heard so much about the middle class.  I don't know about you, but I am frankly fed up with hearing about the so-called "middle class" when many of the people I deal with would be very happy just to belong in the "middle class".  The media has it all wrong about us. During the summer, we're all supposed to be going to cottages, taking road trips and participating in sports, such as swimming, hiking and fishing.  As voters, we are theoretically supposed to be too busy with our "families" in the summer and, as such, out of touch with politics.  In the fall, kids are supposed to go back to school and parents are supposed to be paying at least $600 - $900 on back to school supplies and clothing, while parents of older children drive their kids off to universities or colleges, the tuition for which is being paid by them.  I knew a lot of these kids.  They were just as self-entitled in the 1980s and 1990s as many of them are today, living off Daddy's trust funds and blowing all their money on beer and parties.  There are more serious students though, but we don't hear about them in the media, because these people are usually the mature students that go back to school, rely on OSAP and barely get enough to eat, let alone enough money for beer.

In a few days, there will be a day that is called Black Friday, which follows Thanksgiving Day in the U.S., and this sort of crass consumerism has crossed our borders to make us Canadians think we have to do it too.  Oh, how we all are now suppose to drive across the border and shop and make an official start to our Christmas shopping ... Yeah, right.  WHAT Christmas shopping, many of you are asking ... I don't even have to be there with you, but I know many of my readers barely have two pennies to scrape together to do any kind of Christmas shopping, let alone have families to go to during the holidays.  Reality on the ground is too different than what it appears to be on TV, in the media and on reality shows ... even politicians have it wrong.  During the last federal election, I couldn't shut off the TV fast enough when the clowns running for the federal Conservatives were going on about how they want to offer 'income splitting' for the average family, which they say earn a household average of $93,000 a year.

These clowns go on to offer -- if elected -- and if they bring the deficit down -- a big expensive tax cut that will allow families where it is possible for one high earner to transfer up to $50,000 of his income (or hers, too -- but we all know they are imagining high earning men and stay at home women to be their trophy wives).  The man who likely earns a six figure income can then "save" on taxes by artificially transferring up to $50,000 of his earnings to his stay at home wife (or much lower earning wife), so he will only be taxed on the remaining income.  This whole thing was concocted by the false dichotomy of pitting dual earner families against single earner families ... pretending again, the old Conservative way, that women really all want to stay home to care for their children and not go to work until after the fly the coop.  Na da.  Ain't happening, especially since tying the knot with anybody doesn't come with guarantees these days.  Most families are two earners, simply because one salary doesn't cut it anymore.

The average expenses of a family tell us much more about our so-called make belief earnings that the media would like us to believe we have or can strive for.  I live in a region that is packed full of low wage, low skilled, no future type jobs ... all this, for those who have turned fifty, worked in the plants all their lives and now were told their employer is moving to India or China or Indiana or Detroit, take your pick.  We are supposed to believe our families average $93,000 a year, because our politicians tell us so when they are on the election trail.  I would really like to invite these politicians into MY life and show them what is real and what is fantasy.  I live in a house that is falling apart and I have no money to fix it.  I live in a neighbourhood that has been losing amenities right, left and centre - all whilst the municipal politicians see fit to continue to increase my taxes.  If this is the case, what am I getting more of?  Certainly not services ... we are losing our schools, so kids can no longer walk to school.  We lost the only two financial institutions that were here when we first bought the house.  There are no more family style restaurants or recreational facilities.  The west end of town also has no community centres, no supermarkets, no community agencies, no swimming pools (e.g. the one that was there was shut down and rebuilt in the north end where three indoor pools are within walking distance of where they put the "new" one, and those of us that must take the bus can't get to at night or on weekends).  This tells you who the municipality serves - people that live in the neighbourhoods where all the amenities are all have money and usually drive.

Over the past few years, the only businesses that can thrive in my present neighbourhood are hair salons, low end bars, pawn shops, tattoo shops, convenience stores, fundamentalist churches, as well as other "businesses" which might be less than legal.  Over the past two years, I've seen more tags on buildings, representing the settlement of self-identified gangs.  I hear more about stabbings and shootings, let alone the fact I had personally handled cases that arose from this neighbourhood resulting from families being firebombed, a Muslim man getting beaten within an inch of his life and a family whose son recently killed himself.  With the loss of the high school, I can imagine a sharp increase in drop-outs, along with an increased cycle of poverty.  This is why I need to find a way to get rid of my house and get out of here before its value plummets and I end up owing more on it than I get for it.

My dream would be to leave this region, but until that is even possible, I need to get at least out of this 'hood. I've noticed a rash of home sales over the last year or so in this part of the city, or shall I call it town (because we still don't get city level amenities).   Others have sort of stuck it out here, but then they are retired and are not going anywhere.  The rest of the housing is going to student housing or rentals, with high turnover like many on my own street.  Over the years, people have come and gone from this block.  At one time, if one lived in the 'hood, they'd at least see other people's kids grow up and fulfil their dreams and have kids of their own, and so on.  Unfortunately, this is not the kind of 'hood for that sort of thing.  Many times, I long for community and the need to be part of something.  The unfortunate thing is even if there were some of us in the 'hood that wanted to get together to do something about it, we have no place to meet, not even a decent restaurant where we can all gather for a coffee.  Isolation breeds alienation.

We heard so much about a certain 'crack smoking' mayor of Toronto, which has hit not only all the Toronto media, but international media as well, including talk shows, late night comedies, comics, etc.  I feel if there is any of that 'crack' being smoked, an awful lot of it must be smoked by city planners that make decisions, such as where transit routes go, where to locate municipal services, where to build schools, etc., but then again, the federal government didn't help matters when it chose to scrap the long form census and turned it into a National Household Survey which nobody really had to fill out.  Whole neighbourhoods, age groups, social classes and so forth, were left out, because these being the "prototypes" who will be less likely to voluntarily complete such a thing, city planners even if they aren't on crack still won't have a clue as to what communities like my neighbourhood needs or what it is like to live here.

While the media continues to talk about the typical "middle class" who all have loving families to turn to, more than one vehicle to drive, a rich array of community services to go to, the media also tends to portray the "other Ontario" in a stereotypical way.  The food bank, which seems to be another money grabbing machine, hogs a lot of publicity at this time of the year pretending to be the saviour of all the fallen souls and broken spirits this chronic depression left behind.  Certainly, they are not necessarily stereotyping the poor, but they're doing nothing else for them either, such as what I'd want if I were to even visit an agency like that, and that is, to be pulled out of poverty and be given some hope for a future in my life.  If all I am to be given is expired food rich with preservatives and artificial ingredients for three days and told to come back again two months from now, while their 'researchers' take down way too much information about me, I would just want to run ... run far away.  It's time we shut these charities down and started pushing for policies that work.

While I never had much of a family while growing up, I certainly do have and value a strong sense of independence.  That should be upheld by our society.  That doesn't mean, society should just tell people in their darkest nights to "pull themselves up by their bootstraps", but no ... society should come together once more and find ways to get people out of desperate straits once and for all and to actually provide and promote the kind of equal opportunity that our current media pretends that our society still offers.  That means we need to stop pretending that everything is fine for most of us, that most families are pulling down $80,000 to $90,000 in total household income, or that families can go back to the 1950s and rely in a single earner and get all their needs met.  We need to stop living in the past, turn off the TV, put away that newspaper and start looking around you and talk to the people you see.

Instead of assuming certain people are certain ways because ... (fill in whatever self-blaming principle you think fits), we need to ask ourselves what we as a community can do to make things different enough so that the people we see who are in trouble can find themselves out of trouble and be able to stand on their own two feet, given resources that should be universally available and not just "targeted" to those "in need", or in other words, the "damaged goods", "the poor" or "less fortunate".  We need to find ways so we rely less on charity and the goodwill of others, as fairweather as it might be, to fill our basic needs.  We need to have what we all need in our own communities, our own neighbourhoods and our own homes what we need to maintain ourselves and live our lives out in dignity.

Until then, we must all fight and place the responsibility at the feet of our policy makers that want to make it hard for those who were not born with Daddy's trust account or one of the few remaining good jobs left on this planet, to get by and have a reasonable quality of life.  An election is rumoured to be held in the spring of 2014, and the last thing I want to hear on the hustings is how a typical Ontario family lives, unless those making these statements have met and lived the lives of real people, such as the ones I am talking about.

Thursday, July 11, 2013


In the past few weeks, the news was filled with tragedy, ranging from a massive flood in parts of Alberta, the bombing of the Boston Marathon, a train wreck of a freight train carrying oil through a small Quebec village and the death of more than a dozen fire fighters fighting a fire in Arizona.  With the news coverage, the public is presented with both heroes and villains, while both government and members of the community come together to provide whatever support the "innocent" victims of these tragedies need and deserve.  Some of these tragedies are natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, while others are sparked by human error like the derailment of an oil freight train in Lac Megantic, Quebec.  In any case, people are all around, while governments promise and deliver financial relief to individuals and families finding themselves in the thick of whatever happened.  Thousands of families returned to their homes in Calgary, Alberta, to find they had to demolish their homes or they lost everything they had, while there is community support to bring these families back to at least a stable position once again.  There is nothing wrong with lending a helping hand in these circumstances, or governments stepping in to provide aid when necessary, and for these circumstances, the public does not view this as a charitable act, but as a form of natural justice.

I wish Canadians and our respective governments would take the same approach to eliminating poverty in our country, which is otherwise blessed with wealth, resources and an abundance of talent.  In the above scenarios depicted, most members of the public view these tragedies as being nobody's fault, or perhaps, being someone's fault, but not necessarily to the point of finger pointing or placing blame.  Certainly, those who are directly suffering the effects of these tragedies are not being blamed for their circumstances and people all around want to ensure they are returned to a position of dignity.  At the same time, our citizens and government still don't get the dignity part of this equation when it comes to eliminating poverty.  We still want to blame the person who is poor for their circumstances, like they somehow brought it on themselves.  It is as if these people woke up one day deciding they were going to get sick and unable to work, or they were going to find themselves at the other end of a layoff when the company they worked at for thirty years slams its door shut on them, or they decide to marry somebody who is later found to be an abusive alcoholic and in order to get out of the situation, they must turn to welfare.

First, before we try to understand our hegemonic concepts of what creates poverty and what solves it, we need to discuss issues of dominant theory and privilege.  People have varying levels of privilege in our society, even though many people with privilege within the dominant culture are not always aware of how privileged they really are.  I wrote in this column in the past about how people who have both their driver's licenses and access to their own reliable transportation tend to take this for granted, especially in a region like our own.  They plan their days around their automobile, what routes they will take to their job or to their daily activities, and if they need to do anything else afterwards.  Drivers usually have a pretty good idea how long it is going to take them to get to different places and usually know to allow more time in bad weather, or if they are going somewhere at a time there are likely thousands of others like them using the same roads they will be on, such as taking a trip to Toronto starting out at 8:00 a.m. here and holding out false hope they will get there by 9:30 a.m.  That is why many commuters going there start their drive about 7:00 a.m., as they will more likely get there on time.  The thought of leaving one's job and picking up their son after hockey, and then purchasing a few groceries on the way home is a minor detail for most people.  However, take that car away, and the driver quickly finds out that their trip to work may or may not be accommodated by a bus, so a $30 taxi ride might be necessary each way.  They would not likely be able to pick up their son from hockey or make a stop over for groceries on the way back, unless they want to pay additional taxi fare. They plan the groceries for a day they do not have to go anywhere else.  As a consequence, the former driver realizes they have little time for their family, little time for themselves and much of their time is spent planning how to get places and when to go there.  That is just one example of how privilege is instilled in people; how people in a position of privilege don't often realize how advantaged they are until that advantage is somehow taken away from them.

In our community, most people seem to believe in charity and goodwill towards others.  People believe in these things because they naturally feel a need to "give back" to the community.  We are socialized to believe that we all come from some type of privilege and how important it is to "help the less fortunate".  There is nothing wrong with that.  I do not object to the motive; I object to the method.  The method of "giving back" to the so-called "less fortunate" is riddled with hegemonic ideas that are created by this same privilege and in many ways, serves to protect the privilege that people feel they have, as opposed to bringing the so-called "less fortunate" into a position of equal privilege themselves.  We give to food banks because we feel we need to feed the hungry, but rarely do we hear from the hungry about what they need.  We volunteer at nursing homes to keep an elder companionship, but rarely do we ask if there is a better environment this person could be in.  We support the development of "affordable" and "subsidized" housing because we believe that nobody should have to sacrifice their basic necessities for the high price of shelter, but we don't ask what residents of social housing really aspire to become.  We continue to donate to "charity" because we believe they are a "good cause" and in many cases, they are, but more and more, we are discovering that not all charities are equally effective at achieving their goals.  While there seems to be a growing awareness of members of the donating public about how monies are being spent in a charity, as well as how much is being used to advance the reason for that charity's existence, we have not yet come around to ask the real questions that need to be asked.  These questions surround the issue of what the charity is actually doing and if they are actually achieving anything for those they purport to serve.

I know these kinds of questions.  My husband lost his mother last year to a rare form of cancer.  For many months prior to her death and seemingly eternally after her death, he ranted on about how "billions" of dollars are being donated and/or granted to cancer research and cancer organizations, but there never seems to be a cure.  We continue to see people die from the disease.  One begins to become cynical, wondering if there really was a cure out there, how many of these people that currently work for these organizations or partake in this research and so forth would lose their jobs.  It creates an industry of its own.  "Cancer Can Be Beaten" is a mantra that was played over and over in my day, while today, we continue to have the same amount of cancer, but the Cancer Society appears to be replacing its mantra with other phrases, while millions more of us continue to die of the disease.  The same applies to diabetes, a disease I suffer from and relentlessly curse because of bad genetics, poor health and disadvantage in my day, but to no surprise, there is also a significant diabetes industry out there.  Many organizations "benefit" per se with the alleged tsunami of diabetes hitting our communities.  There are organizations to educate people with diabetes, dieticians to set up meal plans for people with diabetes, doctors to prescribe and treat people with diabetes, clinics to test and assess the progress of diabetic treatment in individuals (e.g. A1C tests), charities to raise funds to provide support and find a "cure" for diabetes, as well as bemoan the world over with apocalyptic thinking how ten percent of our population will soon be afflicted.  There is talk of a cure, improved medications, improved forms of insulin management, and greater knowledge, but no cure again for this disease!

This brings me back to the concept of both industry and privilege and how it deals with the concept of eliminating poverty.  People who are not poor are the ones that are currently setting up and benefiting from programs and services that are supposed to "help" the poor.  There are services of all kinds delivered to poor people, from food banks, soup kitchens, budgeting classes, housing agencies, counselling services, drop in centres, homeless shelters, street workers, etc., but no program in sight to help the poor become NOT poor anymore.  For most poor people, what is needed is more money.  Instead of spending "billions" of dollars, as my husband describes, on more "services" to make poverty more comfortable for the poor, perhaps these "billions" can instead be given to the poor people themselves and let THEM decide how to spend it.  This is not only a scary thought for those who work in and are in particular, paid to provide "services" to, the poor -- it is seen as politically untenable.  Yet when a city experiences a major flood, a small village in Quebec is struck with an exploding freight train, or the country of Haiti is struck with a god-awful earthquake, there is NO LIMIT to the amount of money and resources people think should be spent to get these people out of their straitened circumstances.  After all, they are there by no fault of their own.  I wish we would think the same way about the poor here in Canada.

As I said, nobody woke up one day to decide they were going to have a horrible accident at work that would leave them disabled and unemployed.  Nobody woke up to plan their spouse on leaving them, trading them in for a new model.  Nobody woke up to decide to become ill enough to make finding and keeping a job difficult, if not impossible. Nobody when asked what they want to be when they grow up, chooses "welfare" to be the career they want to have.  These things happen.  Programs like Worker's Compensation, Social Assistance, Old Age Security, Unemployment Insurance and Medicare, were created for a reason.  Unfortunately, too many people are buying into the idea that only if people relied more on their neighbours, their families, their communities, to support them through rough patches, and then there would be no need for welfare, worker's compensation, minimum wages, and so on.  Well, think again.  We were in this position before, and if it worked so well, why is this not still the case?  Perhaps, there was a time when capitalism began to show its cracks and we learned of its imperfections, which are leaving many people behind, either intentionally or unintentionally.  As our recessions become deeper and longer, the only solution big business has to offer is to cut back further on these "entitlement" programs, so that people will have less "incentive" to use them and just get a job.  Oh, if it was only that easy.  I always ask those that make these assumptions if they know where they are hiring the thousands of people that seem to have chosen day after day recently to be unemployed and dependent on the pittance they get from welfare or unemployment insurance.

Niagara Region was recently determined by the Adzuna Group to be the worst place in Canada to find a job if you are unemployed, whereby there are allegedly 100 job seekers for every job vacancy.  In the current way of thinking, the other 99 people simply chose to remain on social assistance because that lifestyle is so easy.  The answer they give us to cut these programs even further.  I have yet to see how this helps. Perhaps, if we withheld any aid to those people in Lac Megantic or to those flooded out in Calgary, perhaps these people will just learn to save their money for rainy days for now on and not live so close to the damn train tracks, right?  The pre-historic thinking that surrounds the elimination of poverty needs to be eliminated as well.  We need to fight poverty as hard as we fight to bring people involved in the above referred tragedies back to their normal lives to the best of our abilities.

We have to stop thinking about food banks and shelters and so forth as being the answer, but instead try to understand how continuing and perpetuating these sorts of programs keeps poverty intact and helps no one. Feeding somebody today is fine, but the same person will be hungry again tomorrow.  What are we going to do about this?  Are we going to continue to erode the dignity and prosperity of an increasing portion of our population by dividing our communities into donors/heroes and recipients of charity/helpless beings?  Or are we going to recognize that the dominant culture that we live in is as much at fault as the economy at keeping this segment of the population down.  Or is it that we fear that if we empower those we serve with the same privileges and rights to participate in the community that you and I have taken for granted will somehow take something away from you?  Food banks didn't grow out of nature; they were invented in 1981 in the city of Edmonton.  Since that time, this concept has grown and become institutionalized, whereby way too damn many of us have become smug and feel we are doing our part by donating to food banks, even partaking in food drives, thinking we are doing anything for those in need, when in fact, we still have not yet asked those in need what they really want to do with their lives, have we?

There is an important element of dignity at play here, which is something that we all need to keep in mind. We also like to believe that to continue to do what we do will continue to distance the poor and their problems from our own lives, to keep us in the privileged positions that we might someday be aware that we are in, but even this does nothing of the sort. We need to take steps to the elimination of poverty, put the responsibility for this situation at the feet of those that can do something about it and despite their pleadings to the contrary, can damn well afford it too.  That is, business needs to start creating jobs that pay well and investing in our communities.  Governments needs to stop paying businesses not to hire and not to invest, while tax breaks after unconditional tax breaks keep getting handed to them year over year, while it is so clear that there is a growing gap in wealth, the middle class is bleeding and that damned Emperor is walking down Bay Street buck naked!  Let's start asking the questions of ourselves and demand answers.  Let's stop assuming that hunger is "being dealt with" and that a massive restructuring of our society and our thinking is in order, in order for not only for us to maintain our position, but to keep the rest of us from falling further into despair and desperation at the hands of the one percent minority that none of us want to have control us.

Your thoughts?

Sunday, March 10, 2013


There is no comfort when a stubborn recession hangs through the clouds, as I walk about this region.  As I walk about this city, the familiar faces straggle about the street corners, the Tim Horton's and the bank machines.  On average, I am asked for change or for a couple of bucks three or four times each time I do walk this walk.  These walks are becoming more dreary lately.  While our city is admittedly trying to spruce up the downtown, one cannot help but notice the developing contrasts, potential for gentrification of housing developments, even in the downtown, which has already been identified as one of the many "priority" neighbourhoods in the Niagara Region.

My walk to my office as I start out each morning reflects more of the same old, same old ... and less of the hopeful prospects our politicians always want to get us to see.  It is not that the presence of the 1% in this region goes without being noticed.  I walk by places like Critelli's Furniture, which is located on the same strip of land and asphalt that includes many of our homeless and destitute and persons soliciting pocket change. Critelli's sells good quality furniture for thousands of dollars apiece. I note the quality is good, but who can pay $3,000 - $4,000 for one chair, $750 for a drink table to set beside a recliner or $2,000 for a mirror? Even many of my colleagues can't put out that much money at a shot for that kind of purchase!  For most, even one of these items cost more than they earn in a month!  In my mind, I ask who among the 1% would dare walk downtown to visit a place like this to buy this kind of furniture, while just outside their windows, the problems and miscreants of our society await. Across from Critelli's, there are two Japanese restaurants side by side, literally in direct competition with one another. I have friends that are laying bets wondering if they are both owned by the same company.  We also flip coins to see which one will outlast the other, which seems to be a major sport in the downtown area these days.  Betting any business will last beyond the year is risky.

The downtown corner where Tim Horton's is almost always occupied by people standing around smoking cigarettes and chattering, while across the street, a private college lets its students out at noon and at four thirty each day like clockwork.  I wonder mildly how many of those students going to that career college will find a job in their field after they graduate.  Maybe the concern these days is putting bums in seats, and not so much caring about how people will move on from there. How come I feel that we should care?  Life in the downtown is rather predictable.  I can almost tell what is going to happen before I even get there.  Once I am off the bus and start walking toward my office, I pass the building where the Landlord and Tenant Board holds its hearings, and dozens of people are evicted every time this takes place.  I have spent many mornings and afternoons in those hearing rooms, trying to bring reality to the minds of the adjudicators, trying to arrange deals for people that may be able to get a good start on paying their rent on time for now on, or enforcing orders for those that won't.

With all of my cognitive deficits imposed on me from various health issues, I sometimes have trouble reading faces, but I do know names.  Everybody represents a phase of my life, sometimes I yearn to return to, but cannot as everything I am involved with is just a phase.  I was once a big part of Occupy Niagara, which has sort of fizzled out.  I was involved in various environmental movements, meetings around transit issues, and various workshops on climate change, as well as recent gatherings about the social assistance reform.  In the past, I also participated in economic development activities and advocated for the small businesses in the area, as I don't see too many of them faring much better than those I witness begging for coins. I even had a hand in organizing a demonstration or two, which I might try to do once again if our provincial government insists on going the way of downloading administration of disability allowances to the region (which would be an unmitigated disaster in many ways).  People are silently suffering and crying out for change, though they can no longer mouth the words, as our voice has been squashed by the powers that be, imposing fear and anxiety as opposed to assurances and hope for a bright future ahead of us.

Brighter Prospects, the oxymoronic name for the recently released report on social assistance reform, tries to paint its recommendations as betterment for the masses, while I can't see this after reading the fine print.  I am trained to read the fine print and paid to do so by many of my clients - individuals and businesses alike, and being in the profession I am in, I don't see "brighter prospects" for anybody in this report.  I am asked almost daily and sometimes multiple times each day what is going to happen to "us", and by "us" the asker is referring to people who are on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). These are people who I successfully appealed their benefits claim, who I represented at the provincial offences court, or even on a charge of assault or trespassing in the Ontario Court of Justice.  They see me as part of "us" because I speak for those that cannot speak for themselves, or are afraid to.  I also speak for small and medium sized business and try to believe that hard work will get "us" somewhere as well, although I sometimes begin to doubt that as well.  I see us all as both sides of the same coin, all of us affected by the economy, the current endless recession and the increasing plight of bad attitudes all over.

Our government is almost positioning this report as the panacea for the misery all around us, when indeed it feeds it and ignores the travesty of legislated poverty, the globalization of labour and the balkanization of all of our voices alike.  The report was not written with poverty reduction in mind, but instead was written to appease those that want to see the deficit trimmed, as if the poor were recently treated to some big party of massive spending and now we need to retreat. The Commission that produced Brighter Prospects did not get the memo that the poor are not responsible for this deficit, nor do they care.  All they want is a home, a job and a friend, which Brighter Prospects offers none of this.  Of course, it is not a problem to make cuts, when you are not the one that is affected, or not the one that gets to see the consequences of them.  I don't think "Brighter Prospects" is going to make my daily trek to the office and around to the coffee shop any more pleasant; in fact, I will see exactly what I know is going to happen to "us" as the people around me are currently asking - I can only see things get worse.

Brighter Prospects is about putting people with disabilities back on welfare in some misguided attempt to erase the stigma against people on Ontario Works, which many of my detractors like to bash and punish simply for having bad luck and not accepting their just desserts while they fell. Adding a whole new group of people to this "undeserving" bunch is not going to make the whole bunch look to be less criminal to the ignorant populace, but is simply going to add people with disabilities to this very misunderstood category of people, who will only become further legislated into poverty.  There is not one recommendation in Brighter Prospects that frees people from this legislative trap. It is not going to put more people into jobs, because evidence shows that time and time again, when people are forced to look for and accept jobs that don't exist, they are not likely to leave Ontario Works or any other program.  When other media reports point out the growing number of young people, older people and others who have no disabilities or minimal barriers, or even have a great education, who are not getting hired, who in their right mind believes that employers will suddenly wake up and hire people off the social assistance rolls?

I recall discussions with many of the employers I have been retained by in my legal office, as well as those I have consulted with while I was part of the Employment Standards Development Committee, as part of the implementation of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.  After they got over the fact that I do not have three heads and get around to finally asking what the AODA actually is, they tell me they simply will not hire anybody who has been on assistance, yet at the same time some have told me that they should just "get a job".  I often wondered if this employer in front of me is not going to hire anybody like this, who will?  I guess this is going to take a lot of time to change people's minds.  I am quite aware of the struggle of the small business owners in my region.  They need people who will help them fulfill their business goals and who are reliable. I concur. I take issue and frequently point out boarded up storefronts along the downtown streets, or large offices that have moved out of the downtown region, often to locales that are difficult to reach by transit.  It is clear that some employers know who they want working for them, and it is not "us" as my friends refer to themselves.  I then turn to the government to ask them how they are going to force employers to take on members of the OW and ODSP community and give them lasting jobs to help them get off the system.  I know forcing them is not the answer, but ...

... another call for consultations takes place and we are all back in Toronto to communicate with one another, sector to sector, to answer these kinds of questions.  I am at these meetings, where many large employers, business associations, employment service providers, municipal managers, as well as people like me, are set up in round tables to talk to one another about what the answers should be.  I speak for the small businesses that can't possibly be there who need support, who need to know what they have to do and not have it cost them a whole lot.  I am there for those with disabilities that have the skills and want to work, to explain how to close that disconnect which seems to be in the wind whenever we go to these roundtables. The whole issue of putting people to work seems to be the non sequiter, but government policy types want to know the HOW.  I always want to explore the reasons WHY first, then the IF, and then the HOW, for those for whom it can work, but we cannot assume that no matter how well meaning we all are (and I have no doubts that all of us around those tables is well meaning), that more than two percent of people will ever work themselves off ODSP, particularly with the rules they currently have and the government refuses to change.

Brighter Prospects has made a big deal about letting "social assistance recipients" keep an extra $200 a month before their working income gets clawed back at a rate that already far exceeds the average taxation level of even the wealthiest millionaires.  If our government suddenly announced that it will tax millionaires at the rate of eighty five percent of all income they receive, chances are they will balk and try to move to other locales that will not tax them so heavily for their "efforts".  So, why is it any different for poor people?  We are no more motivated to work when our income gets cut to the bone than anybody else, so using this strategy over and over again and expecting different results is insane.

I worry a lot about this region.  I don't see a lot of opportunities coming in for "us", as my friends refer to the group of people with traditional difficulties fitting in.  It will still be a recession for a long, long time for them, even if the economy turns around in Ontario and even Niagara is booming again.  While Niagara booming will be great for my small businesses, I still want the connect that is needed to make it work for those that haven't yet experienced the possibility of prosperity.  People with disabilities are promised things will be better when the economy turns around and when it does, nothing ever changes.  When the economy flounders, they are told they have to sacrifice even more to help pay off a debt they had no part of.  If the authors and promoters of Brighter Prospects really want to make things different, they should join me someday, as I get off the bus and walk my way to my office and join me as I meet with my people, and speak to others over the telephone.  They should walk with me as I meet with too many people who month over month seem to get their cheques put on hold by the region's OW office, the same office that wants to take over ODSP cases so the same abuse can be done to this group as well.

Once again I ask, Brighter Prospects for whom?

Thursday, January 31, 2013


Welcome to RRSP Season!  As we leave our holiday season, pack up our Christmas decorations, park the tree by the curb and get back into the business of actually working for a living, we not only bombarded with credit card bills from the Christmas season, we get bombarded by commercials reminding us how we are "richer than we think", or how "banking can be this comfortable".  They then remind us that RRSP deadlines are approaching, usually about the end of February of each year.  Those of us who put our meager pay cheques into our accounts every couple of weeks show up at our bank branch to deposit them are greeted with signs everywhere, reminding everybody about this, as well as how important it is to save for our retirement.  Unfortunately, retirement is quickly becoming a consumer commodity, and no longer a rite of passage, so deserved after many years of hard work either in the labour market, contributing to one's community and/or raising a family.  It is becoming a domain of the rich.

At the same time, we are reminded how profligate we really must be, as financial analysts in the mainstream media constantly berate the majority of Canadians for not having saved enough for our retirement.  We are reminded that the population as a whole is living longer and that most of us will outlive our money if we are too much into spending for today, while ignoring tomorrow.  At the time, everybody from these same analysts to the Governor Bank of Canada warns us that Canadians are underwater with debt, where on average, each Canadian is carrying a debt load that is equivalent to 160% of their annual incomes.  At the same time, the likes of Stephen Harper and his sidekick,James Flaherty tell us how Old Age Security is no longer "sustainable", so we must now delay retirement for everybody until sixty seven, instead of sixty five.  This famous speech by Harper delivered in Davos, Switzerland last year was unprecedented, taking us all by surprise, particularly when Harper campaigned that he was not going to touch Old Age Security.

Aside from the cynicism that those that are making these changes will likely retire with an income most of us can only dream of and would therefore not even be eligible for OAS themselves, this is a ripe attack on the poorest of Canadians, those among us that have no workplace pension or sufficient savings to carry us over. The poorest Canadian seniors are eligible for Old Age Security and a Guaranteed Income Supplement, as well as a small GAINS (Guaranteed Annual Income for Seniors) upon turning sixty five, which at present does not deliver a huge sum, approximately $1,300 a month for a single person.  While those close to retirement today are protected from the later age of retirement, it is those of us in the second half of the so called Baby Boomer generation who will suffer the most.  Our part of this generation was the first to find work that no longer continues to offer benefits, such as pensions, health and dental or disability insurance, so we are told to not only become self sufficient, but to somehow figure out how to save money from a lower average income than our first generation Baby Boomer counterparts.

We are the generation that is getting laid off from our jobs in our late forties, or early fifties, with no realistic prospects to replace the income we lost.  We are the first generation to see pension plans that have been promised to us go bust, when a business makes a decision to go bankrupt or spend these resources elsewhere. Think Nortel, as the best known Canadian example. Despite now being shunted to an even lower income bracket, we still have mortgages to pay, credit card debts, as well as other costs of living that only seem to point in one direction: up.  Harper is not thinking of this group when he talks about how OAS is unsustainable and how we now have to retire later and later, despite our health and financial ability to retire.  As the labour movement continues to badger governments of all stripes to support reform of the Canada Pension Plan system, this would address only part of the problem. With as much as one third of all jobs being non traditional or precarious, and growing more in that direction, more and more workers are unable to make payments of any significant amount into the CPP system anyways.  Financial experts tell us that CPP only replaces 25% of one's pre-retirement income anyways, with the rest to be made up by workplace pensions, OAS and personal savings, which we just stated doesn't exist for most people.

There is a portion of people I work with who have had to drain virtually all of their retirement savings, including all RRSPs, in order to get onto welfare, after their short stint with Employment Insurance did not yield them with any job prospects despite earnestly trying to find work.  For the sake of what was supposed to be "short term" assistance, these folks were pushed in making permanent damage to their credit histories, life chances as well as possibility of even retiring at all, if they should ever re-enter the workforce.  This asset stripping only guarantees that more people will be reliant on the tax base if and when they retire.  Now, with the prospect of having to wait an extra two years to retire, seniors will likely be forced to spend an extra two years on welfare before they can apply for their seniors' benefits.

This trend is happening around us as spin masters continue to control mainstream messages from the media that make it look like everybody is at their earnings peak, have plenty of opportunities and choices in how to "plan" their retirement.  These ads are often followed by commercials featuring luxury vehicles that many of us could only dream of owning.  People like myself wonder who is actually buying these cars, especially when all I hear around me is how this company or that one is laying off dozens or even hundreds of workers, or as more people come into my office trying to battle the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, which to some extent is attempting to mirror its counterparts in the private sector: collecting premiums, but failing or refusing to pay our claims.  This runs counter to compromise made under Meredith in 1915, whereby employers pay into a "no fault" insurance plan, where if any of their employees get injured, they will be compensated by this plan and given health care without the employers risking getting sued.  Many of them are forced to downgrade into much lower paid employment, or to risk re-injuring themselves by returning to their original employer where they hurt themselves.

I don't see the world with rose coloured glasses, nor do I have any religious faith to hold onto, because I am a realist.  I see what I see, and I observe history in the making.  Understanding how history has played out in the past, I certainly am not confident it will play out much better in the future, especially when people who make the decisions about the rest of us do not have to live with the consequences of these decisions.  In a chat with a disgruntled union worker the other day, he reminded me how he tried to get the by-laws changed to impose term limits on union executives, so once they negotiate deals with their employer, they have to someday return to the floor and live with what they just bargained for.  Unfortunately, it seems that the union in question has had the same leadership for many, many years and will probably not change in the near future.  Given the sinecure of these positions, it is hardly likely that these same union leaders and bargaining teams will give a damn about how their negotiations impact on the workers on the floor.

In the meantime, the even less fortunate, those of us that have fallen from the tree, these bright messages about Freedom 55 and travel and leisure in one's "golden years" mean absolutely nothing, as most of us continue to struggle with mortgages, debts and out of pocket health care expenses, that are simply not in our budgets as we attempt to squeeze every penny of our OAS/GIS incomes.  Even many who are presently on ODSP seem to be joyous once they hit sixty five, believing their problems are over, only until they discover they are no longer covered for certain home care services, the 25% portion of assistive devices under the ADP program, or for dental care or eyeglasses.  None of these people will be going away very soon on any kind of vacation.  They will be lucky enough to even hold onto their homes.

At the same time, our governments are throwing good money after seniors that are wealthy enough to afford decent homes and could afford significant renovations up front, in order to benefit from tax credits directed to assist them in remaining in their own homes.  These same seniors are portrayed in such commercials like the Premier Care bath commercials, where a relatively healthy senior lies back in a jacuzzi like setting in a bathroom that is typically larger than most of our living rooms. Low income seniors do not have the same options, even if they are able to hold onto their homes.  However, if they become too ill, they are more likely than wealthier seniors to be shipped off to nursing homes where they get stuck in a room with three other people for the rest of their lives, with only about $30 a week to spend on personal hygiene needs.  Many also languish all day in wet diapers tied down in restraints.  These are not the people that Harper envisions helping to live long and healthy lives.

All I can envision from the powers that be at this stage is a clucking of their tongues, rebuking these unfortunate souls, reprimanding them for not saving enough to pay for their own retirement, or getting themselves too deeply into debt, despite the fact many of these people ended up that way because otherwise, they would not be able to pay the bills to allow them to eat and have a roof over their head in the same month.  At the same time, these same powers that be held publicly paid positions resulting in generous pensions that amount to more than most working people earn in a year, actually wondering why other people can't be more like they were: so damned responsible, parsimonious and careful.  Yeah, sure.

This can be resolved easily.  Publicly funded pensions need to be transformed to defined contribution plans, while political positions should carry no pension entitlements at all.  Politicians should accept whatever options other Canadians are forced to live with in their own retirements.  It pleases me when Hudak speaks of rich public sector pensions given to public sector workers, such as government workers, teachers, fire fighters and others, while those of us with no pension whatsoever have to continue to pay taxes to pay for them to retire in greater dignity than we can ever dream of.  But aside from simply demolishing years of collective agreements for public sector workers, these same politicians also need to increase the rest of our pensions so that nobody retires in poverty, including the widows that never worked outside of the home or people that lived with disabilities that prevented them from working and contributing to their own pensions.

Those of us approaching our fifties are the ones that will have to take the reigns of this issue today to force politicians to come back to earth and rebuild a system of support for seniors that will enable any of us to live comfortably in our "golden years".  Some of you might be wondering if this will cost a fortune, thinking more money from "the taxpayers" will now have to be distributed to more and more people, particularly as those approaching or entering retirement create a bulge in our population demographic.  My belief is that doing this will cut back substantially on the number of seniors forced into nursing homes, or requiring expensive home care for illnesses that could have been prevented by better home environments or healthy diets, etc.  There are many ways this can be financed, not necessarily wholly by tax dollars, but this is a discussion for a different time.  I just don't know why, but this whole talk of RRSPs is depressing to the people I work with that are not allowed to have significant savings, have had to drain their previous retirement accounts, or if they deposit any money into their RDSPs, for the few that qualify to get one, are penalized for the income that this came from, especially if it came from employment.

A major re-think of our social security anybody?  The time is now.